Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sheild of Privilege

By Matt Whalen
Current volunteer with Cap Corps Midwest

Protest march in Washington, DC, December 13, 2014

From 4-6pm at the Maria Kaupas Center (MKC), my ministry site for Cap Corps, there are on average 60 kids ages 9-18 inside the center at once. As we can all imagine, some days there seems to be complete chaos and others days there is relative calm. On most days though there is a mixture of both. A little bit of singing, dancing, arguing, studying, breaking tables (on accident of course), and just being, all happen in this two our window. In this “just being” phase of the day is when I get to know the teens better, in particular the older guys.

One day though, after reflection ended and we were all making our way out of the chapel, I noticed three guys that stayed back and gathered in a pew. While this is not a rare occasion, this time I felt the need to go over to them and just check to see how their days were going. After a few minutes of casual talk, one of the guys told me he saw me walking around the neighborhood on the weekend and was surprised to see me around outside of school hours. He then continued to ask where I shopped for clothes, because according to him “my style doesn’t match the stores around here.” We both laughed and I told him I mainly shop at thrift stores.

This little spark of interest led a handful of others guys, about 5, to come into the chapel, which led to a two hour conversation. In the conversation I shared more about why I was volunteering, that I live in their neighborhood, and other parts of my life. All the guys graciously shared much about their past and I am grateful they did. They were surprised that I don’t get paid, that I walk home, and that out of the whole country I chose to live in Southside Chicago when all they want to do is leave it. They shared with me the realities of living in Southside and the daily struggles they face. Some of them even opened up about things I could not imagine going through.

Matt and youth at Maria Kaupas Center
Toward the end of our conversation, the same guy who called out my wardrobe choice said this: “Life is hard out here Matt. But no matter how long you live here you will never experience it because you have a shield on and it’s called being white.”

With the recent Eric Garner and Mike Brown incidents and protests, we as a center have openly discussed race relations and the teens have been so open in sharing their feelings. The guy who told me “life is hard” is one of the most vocal and his statement could not be truer. What I have realized more than anything else in the past few months at MKC and in Cap Corps is that I wear this “shield of privilege” that protects from the realities people of color face. This shield of privilege is something that I cannot take off because it is engrained in my skin tone and in the middle class suburban upbringing I had. When I tell people I live in Southside Chicago, most people cringe and apologize that my safety is at risk.

Quite the opposite though, I am probably one of the safest in my neighborhood. For example, I can walk through different gang territory and am never mistaken as a part of the other gang. When I walk into a store or church, the clerk or clergy does not follow me around. I don’t have to worry about looking suspicious if I wear my hoodie up and even where I lived is surrounded by an iron gate. This shield of privilege has layers upon layers and not matter how hard I try to strip down to the core, there will always be another layer that either protects me or propels me into the stream of easy living.

It is complex and institutional, stereotypical, and exclusive. I can do things to help dirty the shield, like protest, live in the neighborhood I work in, give up some of the non-essentials, but my past already gives me a one up. I have a college education and I actively chose not to make money this year! Plus, I would be lying if I say the privilege I have is not beneficial, I just wish it wasn’t for a select few.

Protest march in Washington, DC, December 13, 2014
So as the year continues, the best thing I can do is recognize that this shield is always with me. From there I can start using it to protect people of colors’ rights, maybe swing the shield to the left to be exposed for a while, or a least get it dirty through activism, expanding my perspective, inviting more diverse people into my life, and having more conversations with the kids I work with. For people of privilege, the first step is to recognize our privilege. Not to try to hide from it and say history is behind us and everything is hunky-dory, as we can see in Ferguson, New York, Sanford, the education system, and so on. What I can do is be a voice, an educator and more importantly a learner of my privilege and fight for equal rights of all my brothers and sisters through firm resilient love.

See the original post here.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Sunday of Lent Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”
Mark 1:12-15
By Jim Lindsay, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff

Have you ever experienced times in the wilderness --- you know, those occasions when we are in the desert --- feeling lost?  Those times can be great opportunities to find out more about ourselves, about God’s plan for us and about what is most important in our lives.

In today’s gospel, we venture into the wilderness with Jesus. Times in the wilderness can be challenging.  The questions we might ask are these:  How do we deal with these challenges?  Are these challenges the same as temptations?  What is the difference between temptations and the challenges they cause?

Temptation is a very real part of life and is especially challenging in our times in the wilderness.  We are down, disheartened, afraid, and isolated.  But every temptation we encounter brings with it a consequent challenge.  Meeting those trials head on is how we rise above the inducement to sin.

Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted.  Jesus knows what it is like to be challenged.  Jesus knows what it is like to be in the wilderness.  And it was in this wasteland, following his Baptism, that Jesus struggled, mourned, questioned and endured great temptations.  

Jesus teaches us that we encounter the challenges of the wilderness by meeting God daily.  Jesus was prepared to meet the challenges in the wilderness because he was in contact every one of those forty days with God.  This is how Jesus knew God’s will for his life.  It is also the way we learn God’s will for OUR lives.

Focus on the Four Pillars:

Spirituality: The wilderness is the place of devastation and danger, of being tempted off one's path and also of meeting God. Jesus finds God's path for him in the wilderness. Prayer is a wilderness time. It can be perilous for it brings us in touch with the evil as well as with the good in ourselves. With practice, it makes known to us the peace of God in Christ - the harmony that can be found in the desert. It is also the place of recommitment to God and of finding the strength that God offers us.

Reflection: What spirit motivates me in the things I do? Is my heart a home for the Spirit? Could the Holy Spirit be inviting me to take more quiet space? In the scriptures, the ‘wilderness’ is a place of disclosure and of intimacy with God. I need to put secondary things aside to meet God. God is found in emptiness as well as in fullness.

Social Justice: As Lent begins, I might promise God that I will be faithful to the quiet space and time that sacred space offers me. I want the reign of God to come near me. I want to believe more deeply in the good news and to seek to bring about God’s justice on the earth.

Reflection: What difference do I make to other people’s lives? What do I do, within my limitations, to help remove the abuses which are part of our society?  These are just some of the questions I can ask myself during these six weeks.

Simple Living: In our wilderness times we are seduced to listen to the voices that lead us away from God. These voices tell us that the good in our lives is represented by money, power, security, and fame. All of these can be good things.  But good things turn evil when we become persuaded that we don’t need God in our lives.  We get confused about what is truly meaningful in our lives and what gives our lives genuine purpose.  The challenge in all of this is to live our lives knowing that God will provide everything we need.

Reflection: As I enter this Lenten journey, I will examine the areas of temptations, misdirected desires and loyalties in my life. “Repent and believe” involves a process of re-focusing on what is really of value in my life.

Community: Only God could be so human as to withstand temptation. Mark’s Gospel depicts Jesus as divine but also deeply human. He enters the wilderness for one reason only: to find God, to seek God and to belong to him completely. Only then does he go to Galilee and proclaim good news to others.

Reflection: What type of person am I in relation to my family, friends, work colleagues and other people with whom I come in contact? How involved am I as a member of my Christian community, e.g., my parish?

This reflection is part of our Lenten Series - download the entire reflection guide here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Lent begins today. This is a sacred and prayerful time for the Church. Catholic Volunteer Network has partnered with Catholic Apostolate Center to bring you a reflection guide that looks at the Lenten season through the lens of our four pillars of spirituality, social justice, simple living and community. Each reflection is written by a different contributor, and each offering their unique insights and experiences. Many of the contributors are also former volunteers who are actively working to keep service and prayer as integral components of their lives. Some will provide you with thought-provoking reflection questions, while others share practical suggestions of how you can apply the virtues of the four pillars to your Lenten observance.

You can come back to this blog every Sunday to read the new reflection, or download the entire reflection guide here.

Ash Wednesday Reflection
“When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

By Katie Mulembe, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff and Franciscan Mission Service Returned Missioner

Every Ash Wednesday for the last eleven years, I’ve found myself reflecting back on that one time in 2004 when I did Lent right. I gave up chocolate, television, the internet, shopping, alcohol, talking on the phone, and wearing makeup. I didn’t get into a car even once, instead I walked everywhere I needed to go. I wrote letters to my family and dearest friends and was sure to tell them how much I loved them. I spent time every morning and evening in prayer, and I journaled every single day. I didn’t even cheat on Sundays. It was amazing.

Okay, okay, I will come clean – I didn’t actually choose to do all that for Lent, it just sort of happened that way. At the time, I was starting my mission experience, and was taking language courses in a small, remote village in Northern Zambia. I had to travel light because I only had room for one backpack on the long and crowded bus journey to the village. Life was simple out there. My days were spent taking language classes, making new friends in the village, learning how to wash my clothes by hand, and tasting new foods (sadly, there was no chocolate to be found). But every day the sun would set promptly at 6 p.m., and I was left to myself in the quiet darkness, most often only lit by the dim glow of my kerosene lamp. It was just me and God then, and I found myself experiencing a closeness that I had never known before. Through the long silences, I learned how to open up to God and share about my fears and needs. I took comfort in God on those nights when I felt especially homesick. I finished up language school on Palm Sunday, and moved back to the big city just in time for Holy Week. That year, Easter seemed to take on a whole new level of meaning for me.

I have tried to replicate that 2004 experience by giving up or taking on small things here and there. None of it seems to have the same effect. I haven’t yet regained that intense awareness of God’s presence that I felt during those simple days. Of course, it would be nearly impossible to give up all that I did in 2004, but today’s Gospel got me thinking that maybe it’s not what I do to observe Lent, it’s how I do it. Jesus reminds us that when we do good deeds, or give to charity, or fast, we should not boast about them. We should do them in the quiet. So, maybe it is the quiet part that I’ve left out of my recent Lenten observances. As I strive to live more simply, and love more deeply this Lent, I am also taking up the challenge to carve out room for silence to hear how God is speaking to me through this Lenten season.

Focus on the Four Pillars: 

Spirituality: If you struggle with silence, Lectio Divina may be a great way to ease it into your life. This practice involves careful and repetitive reading of a particular passage in order to gain new insights. It is a quiet and introspective way to pray. Consider spending time with Psalm 139:1-18 to reflect on the constant presence of God. Want to learn more? The Carmelites provide a helpful guide to Lectio Divina here:

Social Justice: During his first Mass of 2015, Pope Francis urged us to take action on behalf of those who bear the burden of slavery. “All of us are called (by God) to be free, all are called to be sons and daughters, and each, according to his or her own responsibilities, is called to combat modern forms of enslavement. From every people, culture and religion, let us join our forces,” he said. Statistics indicate that nearly 36 million people are experiencing enslavement today, most of them suffering in silence. Take some time this week to learn more about modern slavery, and determine which steps you would like to take to stop it. Visit for more information.

Simple Living: Have you decided to live more simply this Lenten season by giving up a favorite food or activity? Consider saving the money you would have spent on that item and making a donation to a local soup kitchen. If you are giving up an activity, carefully consider how you would like to use some of the free time to give back to your community.

Community: You do not have to walk this Lenten journey alone. Sharing the experience with your community will help you stay committed to this important time of prayer and fasting. If you live in community, suggest a weekly meeting when you can all support one another throughout Lent. If you do not live in community, consider reaching out to some friends to form a supportive prayer group for this time. You may consider starting out by taking time to reflect on past seasons of Lent and recalling how you have grown through those experiences.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Lasallian Volunteers learn about Privilege while Serving a Diverse group of seniors in the Bronx

By Katie Christensen
Event Coordinator, Lasallian Volunteers
and Bryana Polk
Assistant Occupancy Clerk, Lasallian Volunteers

Serviam Gardens is a fairly new and affordable senior housing development in the Bronx, NY, housing more than 300 residents in 243 units. The demographic make-up of Serviam Gardens makes this property extremely unique. A majority of the residents are Hispanic (Dominican and Puerto Rican), Korean, and Black (Caribbean, African American, and African). The residents from this senior housing come from all walks of life. The socioeconomic backgrounds range from doctors, teachers, artists, musicians, and scientists. Though many of the seniors live alone, a handful of them live with a spouse/significant other, a child, or a sibling.

Serviam Gardens provides subsidized housing for the residents, and also many amenities and services. The property is gated with 24 hour security protection. Serviam is composed of three buildings and each one includes a laundry facility and a special recreational area. The property has a library, theatre, gym, game room, community spaces, computer lab, picnic area, garden, and access to a green roof. The social services department provides classes, health presentations, free tax preparations, and recreational trips for the seniors. They can also receive help with immigration, citizenship, and SNAP benefits. The management department offers assistance with completing necessary paperwork for their subsidized housing. Services for senior citizens at Serviam Gardens are limitless.

 Katie Christensen, Event Coordinator, Second Year Lasallian Volunteer              

Moving from Denver, Colorado, to the Bronx in New York took a huge leap of faith and a lot of courage. Working with senior citizens was not new to me but it also was not something I had a great deal of experience with. Add-in doing social work after majoring in International Affairs and I was obviously out of my league.

It became a sink or swim situation. Coming from a smaller city, going from the majority to the minority, and working with a population that is significantly older than me, I started to see things differently. The older populations become vulnerable as they age. Times change and speed up as they start to slow down. Technology changes, documentation begins to get harder to understand, and transportation is not as easy anymore. 

It is entertaining to watch a group of 65-year-olds, or older, learn to operate a cell phone. Not everything is translated, making things very difficult for a group of people that mostly speak Spanish and Korean. 

I have realized in doing this work that I am very privileged and blessed. I am in good health, grew up in a technologically advanced time, and have all of the opportunities in the world to learn new languages and skill-sets. A lot of the seniors I work with have very few family members alive or living near them.  I have a ton of friends and family. From the people I work with and live with to all of my family back home in Colorado, the amount of love and support I am given is immeasurable. 

I am also privileged in being able to work with seniors because they have so much wisdom and knowledge to share. I gain so much growth in numerous ways by hearing the stories and experiences they share with me. They want me to succeed. They want what is best for me, and because of them I can truly say I am a better person. Moving across the country was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Bryana Polk, Assistant Occupancy Clerk, Second Year Lasallian Volunteer

The idea that I would be working with senior citizens never crossed my mind when I applied to Lasallian Volunteers. A year and a half into my service at Serviam Gardens, I couldn’t see myself elsewhere or working with any other population. I’ve learned a lot of things being in the company of the seniors; some of those lessons came from conversations or by simply observing them.

While many of the seniors at Serviam are completely mobile and independent, a fair portion of them aren’t self-sufficient. Some have home health aides (HHA) who assist them with daily tasks, but it can be a tricky process in receiving one. It’s unfortunate to see some of the seniors who really do need the assistance not be granted or br eligible for that help. As mundane as the topic of HHA can be to us who don’t need that kind of service, it’s a major privilege for the elderly. Not everyone can get it. I’m fortunate to have the choice to take care of myself without aid; I’m not necessarily dependent on someone.

More important than HHA services, a privilege I have that some of the residents don’t have here is close family and friends, and the realization of that is tea- jerking. There are people here who don’t have families that stay near; or maybe they do, but they don’t visit often. Some of them spend their time in their apartment alone; witnessing that makes me want to create lasting relationships, be considered reliable to others, and maintain the solid relationships that I already have with my own friends and family.

Knowing this makes me want to confidently feel that I am loved and cared about by someone. That I can love and care about someone without any reservations. The spectrum of residents here is truly vast. There are residents who can’t keep people out of their apartment, always have children, spouses, and grandchildren at their home; or they visit their children and grandchildren. Then there are cases of the polar opposite. Those residents don’t seem to emit as much internal happiness or joy. This by far is an example of privilege that stands out to me here.

Working with the seniors at Serviam has been challenging at moments, but it’s an absolute blessing to be here. Compared to other Lasallian Volunteers who work with populations who are just embarking into life, Katie and I are able to see how decisions and consequences from the earlier years have impacted lives in the later years, good or bad. It makes me think about how I want my life to be and how I can start or change some things to make sure that I can look back on my life when I’m 70 and feel no regrets or loneliness—only abundant joy and contentment.

What to submit your own volunteer reflection or program article? 
Email Larissa Dalton Stephanoff at

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Reflection on international aid

By Ben, Cap Corps Midwest volunteer in Nicaragua

 When we donate time or money to a cause, we want to know that what we gave is making a positive difference.  We don’t want to spend time on things that don’t matter, and we don’t want to waste money.  I think that makes a lot of sense, but in the year and a half that I’ve been in Nicaragua working at a local NGO, I’ve found that this impulse on the part of foreign donors can have unexpectedly negative repercussions.

When the youth center where I work gets grants to do a project, say an after-school program to 50 under-served youth with classes in Spanish, English, Math, and Dance, the grant providers want to be sure that we are doing what we said we would.  They cant follow us around constantly to see that we are keeping our end of the bargain.  So the most common form of accountability are attendance lists that every kid has to sign at every event. The lists ask for things like name, date of birth, ID number, telephone, and signature.  The lists have to match up, so the kids cant make mistakes.  The lists cant have tears or stains.  Heaven help you if the kids use a red pen.  In a normal week at my youth center there are around 30 attendance lists that need to passed around and monitored so the kids don’t draw on them.  Projects also require periodic reports, photos, and testimonials.  I understand why.  But I also understand that all the time we spend obsessing over lists and writing reports to prove that were doing work reduces the amount of work we can do.  All the paperwork draws staff away from kids who need attention and love and toward mind-numbing tedium and burnout.

Another thing that donors look at when deciding which organizations to donate to is their efficiency.  I remember a couple years looking through Guidestar at the percentage of a charity’s budget allocated to direct service versus administrative costs.  I thought, my money will go farther if it is directly reaching the people.  That’s reasonable if we are giving to a hand-out kind of organization, but if we look solely at efficiency as a standard it is going to push us away from donating to organizations seeking to create social change (because socially oriented work requires more staff, i.e. greater administrative costs).  I’ve seen how my coworkers are underpaid and overworked, in large part because of requirements by the grant providers that limit how the money we receive can be spent.

The trickiest funding issue for me is related to the goals people fund.  The NGO with which I work is based in “Popular Education.”  Popular Education is a method for working for social change that starts with the needs and dreams of the people, and then works from there.  The realities of non-profit funding stand in complete contrast.  Well meaning donors will fund a particular project.  We have several projects aimed at reducing violence against women.  That’s a great goal.  The problem is that it is a goal for Nicaraguans coming from non-Nicaraguans funding the grants.  When goals are set outside of the community trying to reach them, it undermines their effectiveness.

My Take?
If we are blessed to be able to put a portion of our time or resources toward a cause, we need to be able to balance personal responsibility that our gifts are being effectively used with trust that allows organizations to adapt to and work well with their context.  That’s easier to do when we have relationships with the organizations we’re involved with, but that’s not always possible.  I also fear that this sort of perspective could push people toward only supporting domestic causes even though the international community has so many needs and opportunities.  Ultimately, I take my experience as a challenge to give more freely and trust more deeply.